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Spotlight Report

O'Malley places 4 priests on leave

Archdiocese reviewing sex abuse allegations

By Jenna Russell, Globe Staff, 8/24/2003

As the death of convicted child molester John Geoghan closed a grim chapter in the church sexual abuse scandal, the Boston Archdiocese yesterday announced that Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley has placed four priests facing molestation allegations on indefinite leave, a fresh sign the newly appointed prelate will deal more aggressively with accused clergymen than his predecessor.

The move came less than a month after O'Malley's installation and seven months after allegations first surfaced against the Rev. Edward F. Sherry of the Church of the Nativity in Merrimac, the Rev. Edward M. Keohan of Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Revere, and the Rev. Edmund P. Charest of Blessed Sacrament parish in Cambridge. All three have denied the allegations.

The charges against a fourth priest, the Rev. John C. Chaisson, pastor at St. Adelaide Parish in Peabody, date back several years. The four will be on leave until the archdiocese finishes investigating the allegations. Those found guilty could face permanent dismissal, the archdiocese said.

Civil lawsuits filed in January alleged that Charest, Keohan, and Sherry each had molested a teenage boy repeatedly while serving at churches in Malden and Chelsea 20 to 35 years ago.

At the time, Bishop Richard G. Lennon, the interim replacement for Cardinal Bernard F. Law after Law resigned in December, allowed the priests to keep working while the allegations were investigated.

In Chaisson's case, O'Malley set aside a years-old church investigation exonerating the priest, and, as part of his sweeping review of abuse claims, decided the case warranted further scrutiny.

A church spokesman said the state attorney general's office has been briefed on all four cases and has allowed the archdiocese to handle the investigations.

Church officials yesterday visited the four churches involved to explain the priests' absence to parishioners.

''The archbishop said that while there's a hint of a problem, he thought it was better if they could take a leave of absence, and they all agreed,'' said the Rev. Christopher Coyne, archdiocese spokesman.

Of about 24 priests accused of sexual misconduct and have been placed on leave since the scandal began, three have been cleared and returned to their positions.

The others are waiting to be reinstated or dismissed. The four priests whose departures were announced yesterday will be paid, but will be expected to leave their church-owned residences, Coyne said. Attempts to reach the four were unsuccessful.

The removals were the latest in a rapid series of moves O'Malley has made since his July 30 installation to resolve the clergy-sexual abuse scandal and repair the damage to the church's reputation and morale.

Nine days after being installed, O'Malley offered $55 million to settle the claims of more than 500 people who say they were abused by priests. On Thursday, he increased the offer by $10 million. Ten days ago, O'Malley met with Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, who said the archbishop asked for suggestions on how to handle abuse allegations and took his advice with ''refreshing'' openess. Reilly has said that the archdiocese's new policy on sexual abuse is flawed because it favors the accused over alleged victims.

Some victims' advocates applauded the archbishop's move yesterday, calling it positive in the effort to rebuild bridges between the church and those hurt by alleged abuse.

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who filed the January lawsuits against Sherry, Keohan, and Charest, said the archbishop's action will help his clients heal. ''It gives them a sense of fairness and balance,'' he said.

Phil Saviano, founder of the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said removing the priests is ''absolutely the way they should be handled'' by the archdiocese.

''Once the allegations are made known, especially if it's in a legal document, the priests should be put on leave, and the investigations should be done by someone who's trained to do it,'' he said. ''I'm glad to see the new archbishop taking charge. Hopefully there will be more transparency with the way the investigations are handled.''

One clergy activist, concerned that priests' rights have been trampled during the abuse scandal, was encouraged that the priests were consulted before yesterday's decision was rendered.

''If this was a personal appeal by the archbishop to the priests, and they all agreed, that's a totally different procedure than what we had before, when priests were summarily removed,'' said the Rev. Robert Bullock, the president of the Boston Priests Forum.

Coyne said the church's investigation has been complicated by the inability of archdiocesan officials to speak with priests' accusers.

In a statement, the archdiocese said the request that the priests leave their positions ''should not be seen as a determination by the Church of guilt . . . but rather as a responsive effort to protect all parties and ensure due process, both civilly and canonically, for everyone.''


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